It is sometimes said that the problem with Islam is that it hasn’t had its Reformation.
This, I would respectfully suggest, is cobblers. Actually, it’s worse, it’s ignorant, racist islamophobic cobblers.
Now I’m not sure what the “problem” with Islam is. Islam has a whole host of problems at the moment, from Islamophobia in the west to reactionary bigoted mullahs running its holy places, and getting round to emulating something that the Christians screwed up with isn’t one of them. Not to mention ignorant kuffars like me trying to tell them how to do things themselves. Islam isn’t one thing, except for the fact that Oneness is at its centre. That Oneness is the thing that I find most appealing – the Oneness of God reflected in the Oneness of the World. As Bob Marley said, even though he wasn’t a Muslim. One Love. I know many Muslims – I’m a Londoner – and I follow plenty more on Twitter. Their Islam isn’t the same Islam as Jihadi John’s Islam. Except it is.
Anyway, it does seem to me that there are some clear parallels between things happening in Islam and things that happened during the Christian Reformation in Europe, and they’re highly relevant to current events. The Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam in particular has a lot in common with some extreme Puritan Christianity. It’s iconoclastic and ascetic, and involved in a brutal civil war. During the Reformation, brutal civil wars were fought across Europe, not least in England, over the interpretation of religion. Shrines and idols were destroyed. People were brutally murdered. Women were oppressed. Pleasures of all sorts were outlawed. The Scriptures were elevated above all else. I get a little bit annoyed when the media implies that there’s something uniquely evil about the way Daesh are destroying artefacts in Nineveh, or the the Taleban destroyed the Bhuddas of Bamiyan – in the seventeenth century, British religious fundamentalists destroyed a lot of beautiful ancient religious art on our own doorsteps. The word is “iconoclasm”. And, if you will forgive this kuffar for teaching his Muslim grandmother to suck eggs, the sin in Islam isn’t making statues and images, it’s worshipping them. Shirk is worshipping as God that which is not God.
Puritan Christians went on to establish theocracies, particularly in the New World. Can we compare the Massachusetts Colony to Afghanistan under the Taleban? Certainly. Can we argue over degree? Not productively. Both were bad, brutal regimes, as theocracies tend to be. In fact the parallels between modern Wahhabism and Puritan Christianity are very strong, and as an objective historian, it is not unreasonable to claim that Islam is in the throes of its own Reformation.
Comparisons are useful for understanding the differences as much as the similarities and there are many differences. One notable one is that there is no Muslim equivalent of the papacy – the established Catholic church, led by the Pope, was the focus of the Puritans’ anger. The nearest thing might have been the Ottoman caliphate. The early years of Wahhabi influence in the Arabian peninsula were characterised by resistance to Ottoman hegemony in much the same way that Puritanism was associated with political resistance to Catholic monarchies. And the path of the Reformation coincided with the “discovery” of the “New” world. Many Puritans crossed the Atlantic with the hope of establishing their own New Jerusalems, whereas their Islamic counterparts are hoping to establish a new Caliphate right where they are – in which hope, I think, they are just as misguided as the Puritan settlers of North America. Today, however, the Muslim equivalent of the papacy, in terms of the way it enforces doctrinal orthodoxy, might be the Sunni schools in Saudi Arabia.
I think the real hope for Islam, taking its own reformation beyond the barbarous phase is to find its own Enlightenment – which is not necessarily the same as adopting the values of the Western one. Islamic thinkers have What goes around, comes around. Our Western, secular Enlightenment grew out of the Renaissance, which was influenced by Islamic scholarship. That doesn’t mean the devaluation of essential Muslim values, at all; rather, it means rediscovering their truths and setting them in the context of a modern, plural, technological society. I think there’s a lot that Islam can once again bring to the West; and both will be the stronger for it. Not fighting each other, but loving each other. It’s almost always a better strategy.
Now I’m going to tread into areas where I almost certainly shouldn’t. I’m a white, male kuffar, so this is not for me to say. But say it I will (after all, hardly anyone reads this blog).
I think I can see that Enlightenment about to happen, here in Europe. I think I can see where it might go, and I hope I can see who might be leading it. Surprise, surprise, they’re mostly women. I’m aware of more and more Muslim feminists. According to the media, such a thing can’t be possible – after all, Islam is all about oppressing women, isn’t it? But any society that ignores or oppresses its women misses out on the brilliance of half of its population. People, regardless of their genitalia, are the power (reflecting God’s glory). Despite the fact that the media is getting its knickers in a twist about the sad story of three London teenagers, I am absolutely sure that it is women who will be – who are – the force capable of turning Islam away from war and violence and towards Love. Men tend to be handicapped by a bit too much testosterone.
Women can and will lead new understandings of the Holy Qur’an, recognising – for example – that the Medinan surahs may need to be approached more flexibly than the more spiritual Meccan ones, because all of them need to be viewed with prayerful spirituality through the prism of today. With such an approach, it should become possible to argue that real equality is the way for today. Muhammad, peace be unto him, was revolutionary in his time for the respect and autonomy he gave to women. Perhaps there could be a new school of shariah law, to develop an enlightened fiqh that would better reflect modern society than some salafist interpretations coming from the men in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, for example, this might argue that since animal welfare is why halal slaughter prescribes cutting the throat, any slaughter that causes unnecessary suffering to the animal is haram. This could be extended to argue that it is haram to cause animals suffering while they are alive, and that therefore only free-range meat is halal. (You see what I did there? In two sentences I’ve managed to solve one of the most pressing first world liberal problems! Waitrose woo-hoo!)
Perhaps, for example, the new fiqh could argue that since shirk is the worship as God of that which is not God, that therefore today consumerism, the cult of celebrity, the worship of money and designer brands is far more egregious a shirk than making a statue. Definitely shirk to wear Armani under your hijab. OK, that could annoy a few people.
Oh dear I’m doing it again. Mansplaining. White middle-aged kuffar telling the pretty little Muslim ladies what to do and how to think. No, I want you to think for yourselves. You already are? Fantastic. Yes, I am listening.
Actually, there is one particular and very important area where I think that new Islamic thinking, building on old Islamic traditions, could really help the West, and that’s finance. You may or may not have noticed, but we’ve screwed finance up pretty badly. Islamic finance based on sharing profits could revolutionise our western finance. But from the grassroots. Big Western banks paying corrupt ulema to devise workarounds to the letter but not the spirit of sharia finance, so they can open branches in Qatar and Dubai and get their hands on the princelings oil money? They run courses in Sharia finance to do this, and they look wrong to me. My guess is that the real revolution will come when Muslim feminists tie up with the women revolutionising banking in Iceland, to make something that is genuinely cooperative.